“Why is my German Shepherd not listening?
Have you ever asked yourself that question?
It's a question all German Shepherd owners ask.
And it's one I regularly answer emails about.
In short, the answer is over-stimulation impulse control…
Any situation where your dog is over-stimulated is stressful. For both you and your GSD.
- When you have to wait outside at the vet to avoid other dogs.
- At the park, you feel like a snow sleigh moving at 100 miles p/h behind a pack of dogs.
- Having visitors over consists mainly of you apologizing for your unruly dog.
Granted, these are extreme scenarios. Your German Shepherd might ignore a sit, down, or come command.
In this case, you'd work differently to resolve the issue. I'll share ways to work with this in a separate article.
In these extreme scenarios, you're trying to get your dog's attention. But you get…
Zip, nothing, and nada.
It's in these moments you'll find yourself asking that question…
“Why is my German Shepherd not listening?”
And “what can I do about it?”
I hate to be a kill-joy…
But it's important for you to know that you'll never stop over-stimulation for good.
But with patience and careful planning, you can do something about impulse control
Even in super exciting situations.
So before we get to the training plan to learn and teach this new and valuable skill…
I’ll just go into some detail about what goes on in your dog’s head when he's just not listening.
Get this right, you'll get inside your German Shepherd's head. It won't only help to calm any situation.
It will definitely open up your training sessions.
Pushed to The Limits
Your dog has a threshold. It's his level of tolerance for certain things.
It’s the level between calm and relaxed and out of control.
Out of control could be excitement, fear, aggression, anxiety, etc.
Think of his threshold on a scale from 1 to 10. 1 being asleep and 10 being totally out of control.
The optimal threshold is somewhere between 2 and 4 or 5, that’s when your dog is calm, relaxed and it’s easy to get his focus.
6 and up is total over-stimulation.
According to Mardi Richmond in the Whole Dog Journal – your dog moves from one emotional state to another. This is called crossing the threshold.
This is also a brilliant article about a dog named Daisy and her owner Mel. And how they both worked to raise her thresholds.
Click – Click, Bang!
Your GSD also has a trigger.
Triggers are the things that cause a reaction in your dog.
Triggers raise your dog's threshold.
They can be things like other dogs, people, toys, play, sounds, and chaos, etc.
So, for example…
Your GSD sees another dog – that's the trigger.
Suddenly there's a low growl in the back of his throat. His hackles are raised and he's staring.
That's him moving through the scales of his threshold. His reaction will depend on how strong the trigger is.
At this point, you could dangle a medium-rare steak in front of your pooch and you won't get his attention.
I found this excellent visual resource online which explains the process perfectly.
Credit to Behavet and Tom Mitchell for this graphic.
Now you're wondering what to do with this new information and how to apply it to training your GSD…
Here’s how I think you can work with your dog and teach him to control his threshold…
In essence, you are going to teach impulse control.
I'll get to that later.
The first step is to teach your GSD to focus when you ask for it…
Start someplace with very little distraction.
Later, you'll move to more challenging scenarios with more distractions.
Dogs are context-bound. Understanding this is another secret to building a solid dog-owner relationship.
Context-bound means your GSD will sit 98% of the time in the kitchen. But, only 65% of the time in the lounge.
You counter this by only moving to a new area once your dog is reliable with the behavior.
No-force, positive reinforcement training is the best way to teach a dog anything.
Whether you use a clicker or a verbal marker stick to it. I have written an article about clicker/marker training here.
It Won't Come Cheap
You’ll need high value treats for this training.
I know you're thinking, “why can't I use regular treats?”
You'll use it in high energy situations.
So, you really need him to be 100% reliable when you ask for focus.
If you want to know how to get your dog to show you which treats are most valuable to him, check out my article on Dog Learning here.
It’s long, so just skip to the part headed The Power of Food in Dog Learning.
Here's How You Do It…
- Get him into a sit and let him know you have a treat in your hand – he’ll stay focused on the treat.
- Move your hand up to your face between your eyes. He’ll watch your treat hand like a hawk.
I use my index and middle fingers pointing at my eyes.
- Let your eyes lock with your dog's and immediately mark the eye contact with a reward.
The signal you use here is important because it’s the hand signal for focus when there are no treats.
So pick a signal that’s comfortable for you and stick with it.
A bonus to a reliable focus is, your dog will start looking to you for guidance in a situation he is unsure of.
Add The Cue
The word you choose is the sound your dog will understand to mean all-eyes-on-you.
So don't change it.
If you do, your dog will never learn what you want from him.
I use ‘look at me’. But it could be ‘look’, ‘focus’, or anything else.
Gauge your GSD's progress. And only add a cue when he's reliable.
Each dog is different but I’d say within 4 training sessions he’ll have grasped the behavior.
Work on duration
Treat him only after 3 seconds of eye contact.
Then 5 seconds.
Then 7 seconds.
Then 10 seconds.
Go slow over the period of a week or so.
If he gives you 3 seconds on a 5-second training session, Go back to 3 seconds for the rest of the session.
Taking baby steps or a few steps back is not a failure.
It's setting your dog up for success.
Oh, and don't forget to work on distance too.
Fade the Treats
When this focus and duration are reliable. Start fading the rewards.
In the article on Dog Learning, there is a section on fading treats it’s under the heading Reinforcement Schedules.
Generalize in Different Scenarios
Challenge your GSD by moving to different rooms with more distractions. Move outside when he's reliable.
Generalize in as many different places as you can.
Counter Conditioning and Desensitizing
This part of the training plan is important.
In essence, your dog will learn that good things happen when they are around or in something stressful.
This is the impulse control I mentioned earlier. Read about Counter Conditioning and Desensitization here.
In the article, there's a very helpful visual description of counter conditioning.
It works great for fearful, reactive, and over-excited dogs.
Putting it all Together
Ideally, you want your dog to be desensitized and calm in as many situations as possible.
But, like us humans…
This is not always possible. You and your pooch will come across people, dogs, and situations you don't like.
So here's the scenario…
You visit the local dog park for a game of fetch.
And you come across an abrasive dog that instantly rubs your GSD up the wrong way.
If your dog reacts, you both have the focus skill mastered!
Now you can easily draw his attention to you and nip the tension in the bud.
Just a few more points to motivate you, the trainer…
- Start small.
- Gradually increase difficulty.
- Flow with the session. Change this up if you notice your dog checking out.
- Give ‘jackpot' treats for excellent work. It builds motivation.
- Acknowledge small victories.
- Be consistent, for several weeks if necessary.
I hope this solution answers your question, “why is my German Shepherd not listening?”
Feel free to leave your thoughts, questions, and specific scenarios you may be struggling with, in the comments below.
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